It was a crowd of primarily Black spectators that first brought my racial being to consciousness. I will never forget the pointing, laughter and yells, “Look at the white girl!” As a sophomore in high school in the mid-1980s, I was the different one, a minority within a group, for the first time. Eight Black girls and I competed to go to the California State track meet in the 400-meter race. Even though my Orange County high school was very racially mixed (large percentages of Asian and Latino/a Americans), my classes were predominantly white. Selecting mostly white friends and avoiding any direct challenges concerning larger issues of racial identity or justice was easy. For me, racial awareness only existed when I was on the track competing against high-caliber high school athletes, and this was a rare event.
Continued participation in the world of NCAA Division I sprinting brought new issues surrounding race to the foreground. My first collegiate cross-race friendships at UC Irvine were fun, familial, and often flirtatious on the track. The struggles of my Black teammates were acknowledged, but only jokingly and often under the breath. For example, the very real racial profiling struggles they faced were often masked beneath laughing refusals to run behind the white girls on cross-training runs off campus.
“You just can’t chase white girls out on the street!” some of the men would yell, half-opposing the distance workout itself, but half- opposing the prejudice they knew went unchecked just a few steps off campus. It was funny, and it was not funny. All in all, the friendships felt real, comfortable, and nurturing. Although we did socialize off the track, these interactions were rather limited and did not continue significantly once the season concluded.
When I later competed for UCLA, the responses to issues of race were dealt with very differently. Discriminatory experiences at UCLA were not discussed softly on the track. Although not a daily focus of attention, when issues did surface, my Black teammates’ pain and anger were evident and far from hidden or covered over. There were times when I felt personally implicated just hearing about their experiences. These moments made initial efforts at relationship building a bit strained. But in the end, relaxed friendships formed as the powerful bonds created through mutual experiences of physical trials and competition proved strong. But, again, the relationships off the track were limited and short-lived.
After these collegiate experiences, I existed with a continuous recognition of myself as a racial being and a disavowal of prejudice and racism. But there was still something missing. Why was I unable to maintain these friendships off the track? I still hold deep affection for these men and women who were such an instrumental part of my life. What allowed these relationships to remain superficial enough that they could fall away so quickly once the team completed its activity? I still remain close with several of my white former teammates, so the answer has little or nothing to do with a phase-of-life change. Why was it so hard to translate close interracial experiences into sustained relationships?
Ultimately, within several months of my retirement from competitive athletics, I existed once more in an almost exclusively white world. If the single most important factor in developing friendships is proximity, that we become friends with those who are available, perhaps we can decide that my post-collegiate lack of interracial friendships was just natural. 1 But after all of the interracial experiences that I had had, it felt decidedly unnatural. Besides, one of my Black teammates and I later taught in the same school district for several years and never made efforts to renew our connection. In the end, after living a desegregated life, the return to a segregated life felt like a failure of some kind.
What this speaks to is pervasive. According to the Civil Rights Project report, released in 2002, segregation still marks education, housing, and employment in our society, all of which lead us into segregated social lives.2 Even when programs exist to integrate these environments forcibly, they are usually competitive and the cross-race individuals often do not have equal status, helping to explain why deep friendships do not frequently develop.
But this cannot account for my experience. My teammates and I had equal status on the track. While we were in competition somewhat, we were teammates first. Overt racism or prejudice did not undermine our friendships. I have to be honest enough to reflect and admit that we simply were not that close to begin with. Something stopped us from fully entering each other’s lives such that connections even broke down with those in closest proximity. Whatever this something was, it affected my interest and ability to collaborate with people of color within my own school district.
Looking at it now, I know that part of the problem was my incomplete understanding of myself as a racial being, affected by my own whiteness in ways I did not perceive. At that time, I was unable to hear my Black peers’ complaints of racism without requiring them to prove the validity of their experiences. I could not recognize the unequal ground we had traveled to achieve the same positions. Nor was I able to see our difficult moments together as openings for deepening friendship as opposed to causes for rejection. All of this, and more, caused me to pull away.
My relationship to my own whiteness finally became meaningful to me when a significant friendship formed with a Black man I worked with at an urban elementary school. He articulated the ways that my thoughts, feelings, and actions were thoroughly influenced by white privilege. However grateful I may now be for his insight, I assure you that I fought his analysis at every turn. It is highly disconcerting and offensive to be told that you are unconscious of what influences your attitudes and beliefs about the world. The insinuation that unrecognized socialization is largely responsible for my thinking and actions struck at the heart of my sense of individuality and freedom. But, unfortunately, as offensive as an idea might sound, it still may be true.
This friend brought me face to face with how the benefits of whiteness shaped my value system, use of language, and perception of the world. For example, I was horrified to realize the offensive and false nature of the judgments I had grown up hearing. I had been influenced by statements like “If I were them I would…” when discussing people continuing to reside in gang-infested neighborhoods.
The privilege inherent in judging those struggling while sitting in comfort became clear. I had to face the fact that my speech unknowingly betrayed judgments against those with whom I worked at the school site. As I questioned them, I left no confusion regarding my ignorance of the struggles they faced. Adding to that, when I did begin to recognize my errors, my worldview and learned judgments then caused me to respond with pity more often than empathy. A sense of superiority still pervaded my communication style and behavior.
None of this was intentional. Being confronted with my continued failure to eliminate my own patronizing approach, no matter what I did, made me feel either guilty or resistant, depending on the day. Ultimately, accepting that I was acting problematically felt like a rug was being pulled out from under me. I had to reevaluate everything. For quite some time I felt rather lost in the world and clung to those who appeared knowledgeable about these subjects. I became a student of my Black colleague, sometimes unhealthily subservient, sometimes fiercely defensive.
After several years of discussions, challenges, and tears, I now see my racial self as incredibly significant and meaningful. I also see how being white means more than what I determine it to mean. Its historic significance lives on within me whether I perceive it or not. My whiteness affects my teaching practice, my relationships with colleagues, and my ability to collaborate with parents in more ways than I could have imagined. But through questioning that experience, I also have developed a healthier sense of self and recognition of what takes place.
During those years I came face to face with a variety of discomforts and pains related to being a white person in the United States, a dis-ease I now believe to be reflective of a collective white experience. I spent several years trying to find solace in teaching students of color in an urban school district and doing community work with people of color until one day, while attending a meeting at the Community Self-Determination Institute in Watts, one of the staff members turned to me and said something like this: “You know, we’re really glad you’re here, and we like you and all. But we are working with our own people. We can do this. What we really need is for you to go and work with the white people.”
She went on, but my mind was already spinning in several directions, understanding deep down what that really meant for me. Her suggestion essentially asked me to face my biggest fear, talking to white people about race. To be truthful, that was most likely not the first time somebody said that to me. I would wager that it was simply the first time I was ready to hear what it implied, that I needed to take another step on my journey of racial identity development, one that would lead me home to really heal the inner pain I was avoiding and ignoring.
So, finding myself incompletely recovered from my initiation into seeing whiteness, I began to ask some questions. What should the next phase of my racial identity development look like? I realized that for quite some time I had been seeking validation from people of color to help me see myself as a worthy person in the world. My sense of self had relied upon the Black teachers at my school site, who said I was not a “regular” white person. I recalled the satisfaction I felt when the Black counselors and administrators called me an “angel” for my work. When some of the Latino parents and I spent time together, I felt valuable because of the “service” I could provide.
Recognizing how much of my so-called service was tied to my need to feel good about myself, I began to wonder how many other white educators out there were living a similar experience. Further, how can white educators like me leave the guilt behind and exemplify a healthier way of being? How can we dedicate ourselves to working towards equity without letting go of our sense of self? These questions became a project with a larger, formalized research focus.
Within this process I looked for models, deciding that I would do in-depth interviews to locate answers. I chose to interview pairs of cross-race friends because I wanted to hear how race, particularly whiteness, played a role within a sustained, long-term relationship. Ultimately, I wanted to talk to people who had done significant personal work with each other and had experienced deep conflict and/or transformation.
I rightly imagined that these people’s experience might translate into wisdom that would help me do two things. First, I hoped to learn what it would take to better form and sustain collaborative relationships with the people of color in my life. Second, I hoped their experience would help me understand how to create a positive sense of my racial self so that my work did not involve my seeking validation from people of color.
Admittedly, the concept of witnessing offered in this book had not yet occurred to me. Rather, this model emerged out of the process of collecting, analyzing, researching, and interpreting the interviews for the project. Because of that, I do not know what the participants would have said about the concept I put forth in this book.
This book incorporates pieces from the larger project, highlighting white educators of various types who have begun to see their own whiteness. During interviews, they discuss their struggles and the way race issues continue to affect their cross-race friendships. The interviewees talk about how they see whiteness and where they continue to find white privilege and racism lingering within their psyche. The stories of their struggles demonstrate a variety of paths with varying levels of challenge. But, collectively, I believe their stories illustrate a process that can lead toward healing for people who care about equity, improved cross-race relationships, and a life that subverts dominating whiteness.
To find the white people, I searched where whites often do not go successfully: within friendships with people of color. I purposefully looked for people of color who would be intensely aware of race issues, those who actively work to educate people regarding issues of race and/or their community’s healing. I asked for a lot. Both the white person and the person of color talked to me about personal racial identity, perceptions of whiteness, enduring cross-race friendships, and continuing struggles with race issues.
Although wanting most to hear from whites because they would be models for me, I had long ago learned that people of color are usually more keenly aware of white privilege and its effects. Therefore, the original research highlights the perceptions of both the white folks and their friends of color as equally as possible. In this book, however, the white folks receive increased space in terms of their introductions and backgrounds, as their particular journeys can help white educators see our possible paths.
Among others, this book includes several community educators, such as Chicano poet, Luis J. Rodriguez, and his friend, mythologist Michael Meade, as well as a diversity trainer, Lee Mun Wah, producer of The Color of Fear, and Spencer Brewer, his white friend who helped make the film possible. The book also includes anti-bias teacher-trainers Jennifer Obidah and Karen Teel, co-authors of Because of the Kids, as well as educators with a background in speech-language development, such as Lorraine Cole, the CEO of the YWCA USA, and her white friend Katie Gottfred, founder of LEAP Learning Systems, a non-profit organization advancing language development within the Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago.
During the years that I spent interviewing, researching, and analyzing data related to the questions I had generated, I also participated regularly with a growing movement of people in Los Angeles called AWARE-LA, Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere-Los Angeles. The dialogue space provided by this group was essential in clarifying my thinking and strengthening my resolve that I am not the only one experiencing distress over what it means to be white in the United States. I am not the only one searching for a way of being that promotes a healthy sense of self while simultaneously working to increase the capacity to be effectively active in equity efforts.
AWARE-LA promotes the development of a Radical White Identity, an identity I have been working to create for myself. We recognize that work toward a solid, effective antiracist practice must include the creation of a healthy white identity. Working toward this also involves training ourselves to better recognize and respond to the racism and white privilege that are enacted in our daily lives…essentially, witnessing.
Deserving note is the fact that although AWARE-LA did not set out to recruit educators, our group attracts teachers from many different arenas. Whether we work in elementary or high schools, on college campuses, or serve as community educators, many of us see that our willingness to struggle together with this issue has translated into positive impacts within our educational communities.
It has now been over a decade since my first crying fit in the parking lot of an elementary school campus where I refused to acknowledge that my being white had anything to do with anything. After much consideration, I now stand convinced that the future of our country depends on white educators being able to turn within, into the depths of our being, focus on our whiteness for a time, and perceive its effects on our deepest psyche, our teaching practices, and our collaborative relationships. We must face our deepest shadow, our country’s historical legacy of white supremacy. While uncomfortable to admit, its memory lies within us, embedded.
Ours is a collective history so deeply ingrained that it cannot be wished away, consciously put aside, or dismissed. Healing lies in the courageous move to interrogate our racial legacy and understand its continued manifestations. Only when we develop the capacity to name the effects of white privilege can we begin the work of investigating to what degree our relationship with our whiteness requires alteration. White educators must be able to bear witness to the overt and subtle ways that issues of race and dominating whiteness continue to emerge in our daily lives with students, colleagues of color, and community partners, and how they affect policy decisions, health-related services, diversity training, and reform initiatives.
The purpose of this book is to encourage white people – those who identify as European Americans living in North America specifically – to investigate our sense of self from a racial point of view in order to create more intimate and honest relationships with ourselves, others, and the world in general. As uncomfortable as it may become, we have to keep our eyes focused on ourselves. We have to keep whiteness squarely in sight.
One thing white people are really good at is shifting a conversation on race to focus on other groups. As soon as a finger gets pointed at us, many of us point somewhere else and expect the conversation to move in that direction. We shield ourselves reflexively, often without real awareness of the implications. This is precisely the type of dominating whiteness that we need to start noticing. Our tendency to shift focus away from ourselves is very strong. We have been getting away with it for so long that it appears normal. For that reason, this book will keep the finger pointed at white people.
The history of race in the United States is so tragic that each group requires its own healing process. Although true that there are many similar consequences of oppression for groups of color in general, each group also has its distinct needs based upon its differential history. Some call it ethno-specific healing work. Fortunately, there are many people out there working to uplift and heal their specific communities. Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary is but one example. Her work on Post-traumatic Slave Syndrome discusses the ways that African Americans require healing from their trauma, both past and present.
Dr. DeGruy Leary’s work is thought-provoking and inspiring. As an African American woman deeply committed to the healing of her community, her insight is precise. Although targeting her Black community, all readers can benefit from her work. I know I am grateful that my Black teacher-colleagues introduced me to her work. Dr. DeGruy Leary’s work not only expanded my vision regarding the trauma experience by the African American community, but it reinforced my conviction that white people also need to focus on our own healing, not only for our own sake, but for our country as a whole.
For these reasons, my work speaks primarily to white educators, although I hope it will be useful for readers of all backgrounds. I recognize that white folks have developed ways of being due to our history in this country from which we need to heal and that, as educators, we play an important role in shaping the beliefs and attitudes of those in our surroundings. There is no reason to believe that different groups require the same healing process. That would make about as much sense as a doctor giving the same medicine for all maladies. The white experience has been different, and therefore the process through which we must pass must also be different. For white people, as the group that has held dominant status, we are less in touch with how race affects us. For this reason, our first step is to identify the ways our whiteness emerges. Our first step is to become witnesses to our whiteness.